Analysis

Five issues to watch as Denver Public Schools students return to the classroom

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Denver's McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

Denver Public Schools understandably gets more attention than any other school district in the state.

It’s Colorado’s biggest school district and a nationally recognized petri dish for reform. As a skyline of construction cranes stand testament to the city’s booming growth, DPS continues to grapple with the ever-present challenges of educating students on the margins of society.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg just re-upped for another two years leading the country’s fastest growing large urban school district — and he has a largely supportive board behind him. Although some schools got a head start, most of DPS’s roughly 90,000 students said goodbye to summer Monday.

Here are five issues to watch in DPS this school year:

Equity and integration

Equity is an omnipresent DPS buzzword, and providing a great education for all lurks at the heart of many a district initiative. Closing achievement gaps between students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities and their peers is a priority of the district’s Denver Plan 2020, its strategic planning document.

To that end, the district incorporated equity into its School Performance Framework, its color-coded guide to how schools are doing.

An open question is how integration of schools fits into this vision.

DPS has promoted shared enrollment zones — in which traditional neighborhood boundaries dissolve and residents in a larger geographic area pick from a variety of schools but may not get their first choice — as a tool for promoting school choice and integration. Will that eventually help lead to more integrated schools? Or when given a choice, will families opt for schools that will keep races largely separate?

School segregation has received national media attention in recent months, and the spotlight will fall on Denver this year with the 20th anniversary of the end of school busing.

Elections

Three of the seven school board seats are in play in November. This may seem like somewhat of a snoozer, since the outcome will not swing the pendulum away from board support (for the most part) of the district’s direction. But it could result in an even more united front — and 7-0 votes.

Boasberg on the record
We asked DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg what his list would look like. His answers:
  • An emphasis on classrooms being “joyful, rigorous and personalized” and giving teachers the training, coaching and feedback to realize that.
  • The expansion of DPS’s teacher leadership program, which created a hybrid role in which teacher-leaders teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities.
  • Expansion of career and technical education programs at several high schools.
  • The district’s offer to give school leaders more flexibility and autonomy.
  • Developing stronger school leadership pipelines and preparation.

There’s a compelling argument for the value of voices that push back. But a united board can be hard-nosed, too, and some insiders say the current majority has asked harder questions of Boasberg than the previous one from a more closely divided era.

The most hard-fought race is shaping up to be in northwest Denver’s District 5, where lone consistent dissenting voice Arturo Jimenez is leaving because of term limits.

Will candidate Michael Kiley assume that mantle by tapping into the same anti-establishment feeling that carried Rafael Espinoza to a Denver City Council seat in the same neighborhood? Kiley faces Lisa Flores, a former senior program officer at the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation who would mesh well with the current majority.

In southeast Denver’s District 1, Anne Rowe has the advantage of incumbency. She faces upstart Kristi Butkovich, who has criticized “privatization” of education. Records show another potential wild card in District 1, Mike Zink, took out petitions on Aug. 17 but has yet to turn them in. (UPDATE: Zink, a self-described conservative with Tea Party leanings, said Monday he has decided not to run, citing a lack of time and money).

Board chair Happy Haynes so far lacks an opponent for her at-large seat.

Greater autonomy — if schools want it

In a major shift, DPS offered principals the chance to opt their schools out of centrally approved curriculum, teacher training and assessments this school year and go their own way. About one-fifth of principals seized the opportunity.

A more decentralized district is a significant turning point for a district with a historically strong central administration.

What will this end up looking like? What kind of choices will principals make, and why? How many will take the option next year, with more time to plan?

“I think principals have tremendously welcomed it,” Boasberg said in an interview last week. “I think we’re early in the process. The biggest concern we heard from principals last year was, ‘I wish I would have known this earlier.’ Now they do know it, they have multiple months to plan out as they think about their own budgets and their scheduling and their own processes.”

Manual High

What’s next for Manual, the proud but long-troubled high school in near northeast Denver at the heart of the city’s African-American community?

The school has been the focus of one failed reform effort after another, and most recently has suffered from a decline in academic performance and a staff exodus.

The man charged with turning things around this time is principal Nick Dawkins, who is banking on a new career and technical education program bankrolled by Kaiser Permanente as a catalyst.

The Manual community has another major issue on the plate this fall — a new middle school to be co-located on the campus. The hope is to bring a much-needed additional quality middle school to the area and steer more area kids to Manual.

Three schools are seeking to fill that role — a spinoff of McAuliffe International School in Park Hill, Denver Dual Language Academy and Denver School of History Speech and Debate.

New schools — and where to put them

The district faces several other decisions about new schools, including in southwest Denver and seeing through a major expansion of the homegrown charter school juggernaut that is DSST.

In June, the DPS board approved a plan to add eight new schools to the network, in addition to nine existing schools and five previously approved. Four of the schools — two middle schools and two high schools — will focus on the humanities, a break from the DSST model. The district will decide on a location for a new DSST middle school this fall.

One subplot to watch — the charter network’s growth comes as the district faces increasing pressure in gentrifying northwest and northeast Denver for stronger traditional neighborhood schools. If space becomes a premium, will those visions be at odds?

In southwest Denver, where choice and transportation continue to be vexing issues, DPS will choose from both charter- and district-run options for a replacement for Henry World Middle School and a new middle school to share a campus with Abraham Lincoln High School.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.